With what’s billed as its re-imagined production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” Fiasco Theater Company has taken on their second Sondheim in four years. Fiasco, a ten-year-old ensemble that gained acclaim for their inventively bare-bones interpretation of Shakespeare, is just the latest company to try to fix the flaws in Sondheim’s famous 1981 Broadway flop about three old friends who start off cynical and estranged and go backwards in time to their idealistic, collaborative youth.
In its version at Roundabout’s Off-Broadway theater, Fiasco has added some agreeable touches, and, it’s fair to say, cleared up some of the confusion and annoyance that greeted the 1981 production, which closed 12 days after it opened. Now, for example, a character calls out what year it is at the top of each scene. But Fiasco has also made Merrily confusing and annoying in its own original way.
The musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth takes its inspiration and its title from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which begins in 1934 and moves backward toward 1916. The Sondheim/Furth musical begins in 1980 and ends in 1955. When we first meet Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), in 1980, he is a rich and famous Hollywood movie producer who, as is clear to everybody but himself, is miserable: He is cheating on his second wife; he has given up composing music, which was his first love and his lifelong ambition; and he’s giving himself a party for his latest movie, which all the cocaine-sniffing partiers behind his back say is terrible. He is also friendless. When he introduces Mary Flynn as “my deepest, closest friend in all the world. We go way back,” she retorts: “But seldom forward.”
Mary (Jessie Austrian), a critic and a novelist, is a knock-down drunk given to caustic retorts. In love for decades with Franklin, though always unspoken and unrequited, she has grown bitter and fat.
Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), in middle age an award-winning playwright, is not even at the party. We eventually piece together the reason why as the scenes shift to 1979 and then 1976 and 1973: Charley and Franklin were collaborating on a musical, Charley as the book writer and lyricist, Franklin as the composer, but Franklin in effect abandoned Charley to pursue a career in Hollywood.
Now let me stop here and say your average fanatical New York theatergoer knows “Merrily We Roll Along” backwards and forwards, so to speak – both its plot and its problems. For those unfamiliar with either, I recommend “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” the 2016 documentary film about the musical (currently on Netflix), directed by Lonny Price, who played Charley Kringas in the original (and so far only) Broadway production. The movie details all the snafus and mistakes, such as how director Harold Prince cast college-age performers to portray the characters. This worked at the end of the show, when they are supposed to be college age, far better than at the beginning when they’re middle aged.
Fiasco (and all other productions that I’ve seen) tries to avoid that problem by casting actors closer to the age of the Franklin, Mary and Charley whom we first see. Yet there somehow remains something childlike in these characters, even as they drink their martinis. This may have to do with how cartoon-like their adult decadence — they’re drunks, philanderers, brawlers, backbiters and boasters, without much nuance (and perhaps more so because of Fiasco’s cuts.) I also think this feeling of pretend-adults might have something to do in this production with the Fiasco aesthetic, which is reminiscent of storybook theater. This was more obvious in their 2015 production of “Into The Woods,” which worked for the first act when Sondheim and Lapine are offering playful interpretations of classic fairy tales, but , as I wrote in my review, was not as successful when the tone is supposed to change, the fairy tales becoming adult stories of compromise, disappointment, moral ambiguity and ambivalence.
The Fiasco ensemble members are appealing performers trying to impersonate unappealing adults. They are more successful when the characters transform into appealing youths, delivering the best of Sondheim’s songs in a score that is surely the only reason why theaters keep on re-staging this show. “Old Friends” and “Not A Day Goes By” have become standards. “Our Time” and “Opening Doors,” which Sondheim claims is the only song he ever wrote that was autobiographical, are nearly reason enough to sit through the rest of “Merrily.”
In a program note, we’re told that Fiasco spent nearly four years “developing their concept for Merrily.” They sifted through several versions of the script and other material, with Sondheim’s help.The resulting production gives the two different versions of “Not a Day Goes By” to a different character, altering its meaning, and offers a similar dual treatment of “Growing Up.” It also includes a scene from the Kaufman/Hart play, when, early in Franklin’s first marriage, his in-laws bicker with him for dreaming of being a composer, rather than getting a job to support his wife. As with “Into The Woods,” Fiasco has also enlisted Derek McLane as the set designer. He creates a set cluttered with the characters’ past – clothing racks, typewriters, music stands – but also, cleverly, the show’s past as well: Up near the top is the marquee from the Alvin, which was the theater (since renamed the Neil Simon) where “Merrily We Roll Along” played on Broadway.
But Fiasco’s most consequential concept is to pare down the size of the cast from the 27 in the Broadway production to just six. This means that three performers portray some two dozen characters, a choice that creates a new level of confusion. It also, surely unintentionally, sends a signal that all those characters don’t really matter. And it’s frankly hard to argue that they do.
Merrily We Roll Along
Roundabout’s Laura Pels
Music by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth
Directed by Noah Brody; choreography by Lorin Latarro; sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Peter Hylenski; music direction, orchestrations and new arrangements, Alexander Gemignani; production stage manager, Mark Dobrow.
Cast: Jessie Austrian, Brittany Bradford, Paul L. Coffey, Manu Narayan, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young.
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
Merrily We Roll Along is scheduled on stage through April 7, 2019
Extends one week to April 14.